Stars Who Earned Next To Nothing For Successful Movies

11 minute read

By Jack Sackman

Sometimes well-known actors and actresses accept really small paychecks to take part in movies. This can be at the start of their careers or later on. When actors and actresses are first starting, it is pretty common for them to take a small paycheck because any job is an opportunity to launch their careers. Later on, it can be because they want to work on small indie projects that don’t have large budgets. These indie roles can sometimes end up shooting them to superstardom, which means big paychecks in the near future.

Here are 15 well-known actors and actresses who received very little compensation for big-name films. Enjoy!

15. Harrison Ford – Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

There is an enormous amount of attention surrounding the casting of unknown actor John Boyega as the lead role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but back in 1977 there was another somewhat unknown actor cast in the original film. This was Harrison Ford when he took on the role of Han Solo, although he had achieved some fame when he worked with Lucas on the 1973 film American Graffiti. For his role as the key character, Ford received only $10,000, with the film earning a staggering $775.4 million at the box office. It did launch his career, however, and he would earn more in the following films, but it is quite a low amount, particularly since Mark Hamill reportedly earned $650,000 for his portrayal of Luke Skywalker. Despite this, we’re sure that playing Indiana Jones and roles in Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Witness, Patriot Games and dozens of other brilliant films more than make up for it. Source: Youtube.comSource: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

14. Gal Gadot – Wonder Woman 

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the obvious pay gap between actors and actresses in Hollywood nowadays but in 2017 it was reported that Gal Gadot only earned $300,000 for her lead role in the superhero smash hit, Wonder Woman (2017). The film went on to gross a whopping $821 million and was greenlit for a sequel almost immediately, so when Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 hits theatres next summer, we fully expect to hear that Gadot has received a much bigger payday. The sequel will star the return of Chris Pine, and Robin Wright, as well as newcomers Kristen Wii and Pedro Pascal.

The Israeli born actress is also set to star alongside Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds in the upcoming big-budget Netflix film, Red Notice, opening on June 11, 2020.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

13. John Travolta – Pulp Fiction

Although he might not be the actor he once was, back in the late ’70s John Travolta was a big deal, landing lead roles in Grease (1978) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), as well as supporting role in the Stephen King‘s adaptation of Carrie (1976). Unfortunately, Travolta’s career hit a bit of a lull after that, so in order to get his career back on track, the New Jersey native agreed to receive a $150,000 paycheque for his role as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), a cult classic that has since grossed $213.9 million.

Travolta went on to earn $20 million for his part in Swordfish and another $14 million for his role in Hairspray, so it all worked out.

Source: Screenshot via Miramax Films

12. Ethan Hawke – The Purge

Thanks to roles in films such as Training Day, Assault on Precinct 13, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and last year’s Boyhood, Ethan Hawke certainly isn’t short of money. Still, it is impressive when an actor with as much clout as Hawke takes on a role for next to nothing. This was the case when he took on the role of James Sandin in James DeMonaco’s 2013 horror, The Purge. Hawke stated that he was paid practically nothing upfront and that there “were no perks. No trailer, no driver, no BS, just a great role, a great director. Hell, on The Purge, I slept on his couch the whole shoot.” Although the film received mixed reviews, it turned out to be a box office hit where it pulled in $89.3 million from a budget of just $3 million. Due to its unexpected profit, Hawke later accepted a percentage of this. Source: Collider.comSource: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

11. Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween

The original “Scream Queen” and as much a horror icon as Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees, Jamie Lee Curtis helped to shape the slasher genre with her portrayal as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s immensely influential Halloween. She would go on to reprise her role numerous times and star in several other horror films, as well as expand into different genres, but it is her role in Halloween that launched her career. Her performance helped it to become the highest-grossing independent film of its time. It would earn $70 million around the world on a budget of around $325,000, and this limited budget significantly impacted the production of the film. Curtis received just $8,000 for her brilliant performance, but by defining the “final girl” role she became immensely popular and successful in the horror genre, and then also outside of it too. Source: Crashlanden.wordpress.comSource: Screenshot via Compass International Pictures

10. Jon Heder – Napoleon Dynamite

Now a cult classic and one of the most quoted comedies of the last 15 years, Napoleon Dynamite commanded $46.1 million at the box office off a modest budget of $400,000. Nobody quite predicted it would become such a huge hit (and sell so much merchandise), and its massive success can be largely attributed to the hilarious performance by Jon Heder in the title role as a socially awkward 16-year-old. It was Heder’s debut full-length feature, and it is reported that he only took on the role as a favor to his friend and the director, Jared Hess. Heder was initially paid only $1,000 for his time and effort, but following the success of the film, Heder’s compensation was rightfully re-negotiated and he received a cut of the profits. Although he has not found too much success since it turned out to be a very profitable favor. Source: Filmgarb.comSource: Screenshot via Fox Searchlight Pictures

9. Jon Voight – Midnight Cowboy

When Jon Voight agreed to work for the minimum wage on Midnight Cowboy, he knew that this role would launch his career. He had a few films and television credits under his belt, but was so desperate for a big role and to perform opposite Dustin Hoffman that he practically worked for free. The production crew even charged Voight for the coffee that he drank, but he knew that things would never be the same after this defining role. He was right, as the film pulled in almost $45 million at the box office and won three Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay). Voight and Hoffman earned nominations for Best Actor but lost out to John Wayne in True Grit. Voight was now a star though and earned huge sums in many great films such as Deliverance, Coming Home, The Champ, and Runaway Train. Source: Movpins.comSource: Screenshot via United Artists

8. Bill Murray – Rushmore

Bill Murray is a respected actor in Hollywood and is capable of commanding huge fees to appear in films, but he is also known to favor small, independent films that don’t have huge budgets for stars. This shows that Murray truly enjoys his work and feels passionate about certain projects, which is refreshing to see. This is notable in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, where Anderson wrote the role of Mr. Blume for Murray but did not think he would be able to afford him. Murray loved the script so much that he agreed to work for scale, which turned out to be around $9,000. It turned out to be one of Murray’s greatest roles and an excellent film which is now a cult classic. Murray was such a great fit for Anderson’s style, that he has since appeared in each of his immediately recognizable films. Source: Film4.comSource: Screenshot via Buena Vista Pictures

7. Mel Gibson – Mad Max

For a while, Mel Gibson owned Hollywood. He made loads of money and he did whatever he wanted – both on and off the screen. That eventually came to an end thanks to his well-documented racist and violent outbursts. Now he doesn’t have much a career. Back before he became the huge star that we remember, he wasn’t exactly well established or well paid. Like many actors, he had to prove himself.

Take Gibson’s role in Mad Max. He only made $15,000. This was way back in 1979, so it may sound like a lot of money. However, it wasn’t, considering that the film’s budget was $400,000 and it ended up bringing in $5 million at the box office. This just goes to show you that all actors and actresses have to start somewhere. Taking a little paycheck at the beginning can mean bigger paychecks later if you prove yourself. Source: FlickeringMyth.comSource: Screenshot via Roadshow Film Distributors

6. Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street

Jonah Hill revealed that he received $60,000 for his role in The Wolf of Wall Street. According to him, he chose to work for that price because he wanted to work for Martin Scorsese. “I would sell my house and give all my money to work for him. This isn’t what you make money for. I would’ve done anything in the world. I would do it again in a second. This sh–t isn’t about money. You should do things that you care about,” he told Howard Stern.

The film itself had a budget of $100 million and made $392 million at the box office. For his performance, Hill was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Although he was super excited about working with Scorsese and for being nominated for an Oscar, he didn’t end up winning. At the very least, now the Superbad star can consider himself a serious actor. Source: YouTubeSource: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

5. Seann William Scott – American Pie

Seann William Scott was reportedly paid only $8,000 for the original American Pie movie. That isn’t very much considering that the film had a budget of $11 million and ended up taking home over $235 million at the box office. He seemed to learn his lesson when it came time for negotiating his salary for the film’s fourth installment. He ended up receiving $5 million to reprise his role Steve Stifler in American Reunion, plus a small slice of first-dollar gross – way more than he received for the initial film.

We think Scott should have received a bonus or something for his work in the first film. It only seems fair given how much it earned at the box office. Outside of the American Pie franchise, Scott doesn’t seem to have much of a career. We hope he can stretch out his salary from the last film so that it lasts until a fifth installment appears. Source: Universal PicturesSource: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

4. Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry

For her role as Brandon Teena – a trans-man who is raped and murdered by a couple of male acquaintances – Hilary Swank only earned $75 a week. At the end of filming, she brought home a total of $3000, which was too low to qualify her for health insurance. She did a lot of work to prepare for the role. She dressed and lived as a man for a month. Part of this included wrapping her chest in bandages and putting socks in the crotch area of her pants. She also reduced her body fat to seven percent.

Part of the reason for Swank’s low pay is probably since she was an unknown actress at the time. The director, Kimberly Peirce, wasn’t interested in a well-known actress taking on the role of Teena. Swank ended up blowing everyone away with her performance. She earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actress, which put her on the map in Hollywood.'t-cry-1999/gallery/gallery-boys-dont-cry Source: Sky MoviesSource: Screenshot via Fox Searchlight Pictures

3. George Clooney – Good Night, and Good Luck

George Clooney is one of the recognizable movie stars of this age. Because of this, he is paid the big bucks. Sometimes things just don’t work out as planned. For Good Night, and Good Luck, he took on three major roles – screenwriter, director, and lead actor. When he applied for insurance, he wasn’t able to qualify because of an injury he incurred on the set of Syriana. To finance the film, which cost $7 million, he had to mortgage his house to help pay for associated costs.

Luckily for Clooney, the film ended up doing pretty well at the box office. It brought in $56.5 million worldwide, which meant he could finally pay himself for his work. He decided to take a $1 million paycheck for each of his roles, which ended up totaling $3 million. The Oscar-winning actor is generally used to getting paid a lot more than that, so this was quite the sacrifice. Source: Warner Bros.Source: Screenshot via Warner Independent Pictures

2. Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey performed of a lifetime in Dallas Buyers Club. Before that role, many of us only knew the gorgeous actor for his work in romantic comedies. He had yet to prove that he was a serious actor who was capable of taking on gritty roles. To play Ron Woodroof, he was paid only $200,000, plus backend participation. With a budget of $5 million, the film ended up bringing in just over $55 million at the box office. McConaughey earned an Academy Award for Best Actor for his stellar performance.

Before McConaughey had signed onto the role, a few other actors were interested. Woody Harrelson was initially attached; however, he left due to financing issues. Brad Pitt then took over the lead role. When he was no longer attached, Ryan Gosling was up for the part, but that fell through. It was only in 2009 that McConaughey got involved in the film.

(AP Photo/Toronto International Film Festival) Source: Revere MagazineSource: Screenshot via Focus Features

1. Tom Cruise – Magnolia

Tom Cruise ruled the 90s, but he wasn’t always paid like he was. For his role in Magnolia, he was reportedly only paid $100,000. The film had a budget of $37 million. However, it struggled at the box office, only bringing in just over $48 million.

Strangely, Cruise was one of the first to be cast in the movie. He was such a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Boogie Nights that he asked the director-screenwriter to keep him in mind for his next movie. When Anderson finished the script for Magnolia, the two got back in touch. Cruise was offered the role of Frank T.J. Mackey. While he was interested in the role, he didn’t initially take it. It took some convincing, but eventually, he was on board. The Eyes Wide Shut star was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, but he didn’t win. He makes way more money now for his roles, but he has not been nominated for another Oscar since. Source: The Movie My LifeSource: Screenshot via New Line Cinema

Jack Sackman


Jack Sackman has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2013.